This story was originally Appear in dark and is climate desk cooperate.
Across farms across the Midwest, if Girish Chowdhary succeeds, farmers could one day drop Beagle-sized robots into their fields like a pack of hounds flushing pheasants. The robots will scurry through cool shade under a wide variety of plants, pulling weeds, planting cover crops, diagnosing plant infections, and collecting data to help farmers optimize their farms, he said.
Chowdhary, a researcher at the University of Illinois, works around corn, one of the most productive single crops in the world. In the U.S., the corn industry is worth $82.6 billion in 2021, but like nearly every other sector of the agricultural economy, it faces daunting problems, including changing weather patterns, environmental degradation, severe labor shortages, and rising the cost of. Key inputs: herbicides, pesticides and seeds.
The entire agribusiness is betting that the world has reached a tipping point where population growth, the economic realities of traditional farming, and the urgent needs caused by advanced technology come together to require something called precision agriculture, which aims to maximize Reduced inputs and costs, as well as the accompanying environmental concerns.
Any field of agriculture cannot be separated from passionate advocates of robotics and artificial intelligence, which can solve basically all the problems facing farmers today. Their visions range from technologies that cover existing farm practices to a complete rethinking of farming that removes tractors, soil, sunlight, weather, and even the outdoors as a factor in farm life.
But the promise of precision agriculture remains unfulfilled. Since most of the promised systems never hit the market, the final price was minimal, and there was little valuable real-world data on whether they worked.
“The marketing of precision agriculture is going to have a huge impact, we don’t have the data yet,” said Emily Duncan, a researcher in the Department of Geography, Environment and Mapping at the University of Guelph, Canada. “Coming back to the idea that we want to use less inputs, precision agriculture doesn’t necessarily say we’re going to use less overall.”
Even so, Chowdhary, co-founder and CTO of Earthsense, the company that makes these beagle-sized robots, hopes that adopting his robots will push farmers beyond precision farming and think about the agricultural business in a whole new way. Right now, most farmers focus on yield, defining success as growing more on the same amount of land, he said. The result: From horizon to horizon, industrial monocultures are chock-full of chemicals and tended by bulky and increasingly expensive machines. With the help of his robots, Choudhury envisions a future where small farms will live in greater harmony with nature, growing a variety of high-value crops and using fewer chemicals.
“The most important thing we can do is make it easier for farmers to focus on profit, not just yield,” Chaudhry wrote in an email to Undark. “Management tools that help reduce fertilizer and herbicide costs while improving land quality and maintaining yields will help farmers realize more profits through fundamentally more sustainable technologies.”